A comment from a fellow Trollope enthusiast has prompted me to post an update on the Trollope Challenge. I finished my 47th and final novel in November last year, although was too frantically busy with Mr Muscles to write any reviews. Anyway, the experience was a Mixed Bag, although immensely enjoyable. Trollope was an extremely varied writer, both in terms of subject matter and quality. With the emphasis invariably on the Palliser novels and Barsetshire Chronicles, it’s easy to forget that he was a great experimenter in style and setting.
I’ve chosen below, in no particular order, my favourite Trollope novels. They’re not always necessarily the best-written, but those that most piqued my interest. All of them are a good read, however, showcasing Trollope’s considerable creative talents.
Can You Forgive Her?
Rudely referred to by Stephen King as Can You Finish It?, this novel is long, but utterly absorbing. Using the theme of “What should a woman do with her life,” Trollope portrays four expertly-drawn characters who all make very different choices. Of course, it is also the first instalment of the great Palliser Saga, and introduces us to the beguiling Lady Glencora, who must choose between the worthless but charming Burgo Fitzgerald, and the slightly dull but reliable Plantagenet Palliser.
Although in Rachel Ray Trollope sought to confine himself to the “commonest details of the commonplace life,” the novel is anything but dull. Luke Rowan returns to the pastoral idyll of Baslehurst to involve himself with the family brewing firm. He annoys the wife of his business partner by eschewing the charms of her daughter, instead falling for the rustic ingenue Rachel Ray. Comic relief is provided by Mr Prong the curate, who is determined to drag Rachel’s widowed sister Mrs Prime up the aisle so he can get his paws on her income. Beguiling and thought-provoking.
The Prime Minister
This isn’t the best-written of Trollope’s novels, but it contains one his finest creations: Ferdinand Lopez. Lopez is a devilishly handsome adventurer of Portuguese-Jewish descent, hell-bent on acquiring infinite riches and the hand of Emily Wharton, daughter of a wealthy barrister. When his inevitable downfall occurs, he throws himself in front of an express train and is blown to “bloody atoms”, in an utterly unforgettable scene worthy of Zola. Lopez completely subsumes the plot, but he is a worthy cynosure.
The Vicar of Bullhampton
Following an unplanned dip her friend’s pond, Mary Lowther realises she cannot marry a man she doesn’t love. Her friends point out that, as a mere woman, she ought to be grateful for the offer, and she relents. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. Her marital misery is contrasted with Mr and Mrs Fenwick, who remain in a permanent state that not every union is as felicitous as their own.
Trollope’s examination of the Woman Question is better executed in some of his other work, but the eponymous Vicar is what really makes this novel sparkle. He is a veritable Jeremy Kyle, obliged to deal with an endless stream of seemingly intractable problems amongst his parishioners, only without the biting.
The Fixed Period
Many Trollopites would rather forget The Fixed Period, as this futuristic novel is a radical and unexpected departure for their idol. Imagine Thomas Pynchon writing a chick lit novel, or Maeve Binchy turning her hand to slash fiction.
The story is set in 1980 in the fictional republic of Britannula, created when a group of ex-pats occupy the South Island of New Zealand and claim independence from Great Britain. The peaceful republic is thrown into disarray when President Neverbend introduces his pet theory of the Fixed Period. Concerned that people should not be allowed to outlive their usefulness, he introduces a programme of mandatory euthanasia for anyone reaching the age of 67 and a half.
Trollope’s imagination soars when he predicts mobile telephony and podcasting, but fails him when he suggests that the brave new world still involves a hereditary upper chamber and cricket. Darkly comedic and immensely entertaining.
Part Two of the infamous Chronicles of Barsetshire, the story begins with the death of the Bishop, followed by a great deal of manoeuvering amongst those who seek to fill the much-coveted position. The triumphant candidate is Thomas Proudie, although it is his wife who wears the cassock in their household. Mrs Proudie – the “Medea of Barchester” – is perhaps Trollope’s most famous character and one of his finest comic creations. The plot mainly concerns her battles with the ambitious and oleaginous Obadiah Slope, who is determined to bend the Bishop to his will. The confrontations between Mrs Proudie and Slope are brilliantly drawn and sublimely funny.
Incisive, entertaining and provocative, Barchester Towers provides unalloyed delight.
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil
Sheep-farming in the Australian outback might seem like an odd topic for Trollope, an author known best for his forensic analysis of English society. However, he was intimately acquainted with the Antipodes after bankrolling his son’s grand plan to settle in the outback.
Like Fred Trollope, Harry Heathcote is a young Englishman who has leased 120,000 acres of Gangoil bush from the Australian government to graze his 30,000 sheep. Unlike Fred, he is successful, but a growing sense of paranoia gets a grip on him. His inability to trust anyone almost brings about his downfall, and redemption occurs only when he resolves to challenge his prejudices.
The economical style and dramatic setting make this an unexpected and refreshing departure from Trollope’s usual style.
The Way We Live Now
Often referred to as the most “Dickensian” of Trollope’s novels, The Way We Live Now is a scathing attack on the dwindling morality of the mid-Victorian period and the “commercial profligacy of the age”.
The glittering cast of characters is headed by Augustus Melmotte, an entrepreneur of dubious provenance who seeks social advantage through his immense wealth. He angles to pair his timorous daughter Marie with an aristocrat who can confer respectability and lineage upon his house.
Feckless baronets are queueing up for her hand, hypnotised by their prospective father-in-law’s fortune, and are drawn into his web of fraud and speculation. Melmotte’s vertiginous rise and inevitable fall transfixes the reader, and the fates of those who are dragged down with him are told with great poignancy. Dark, but brilliant.
In this extraordinary novel, Trollope examines the issue of a man’s right to a sexual past. In an age when female purity was privileged above all, it was a daring diversion. John Caldigate finds himself trapped in a quasi-engagement after joining the race to find gold in New South Wales. His fiancée is Euphemia Smith, a woman no better than she ought to be, who combines tenacity with wickedness. Leaving her behind, Caldigate returns to England and marries the respectable and saintly Hester Bolton. All is well until some unwelcome faces from the past resurface and accuse Caldigate of bigamy.
The plot is engaging and surprising, with the denouement involving a postage stamp. Yes, really.
Published anonymously, Nina Balakta is one of Trollope’s least-known works. It is also one of his most beautiful. Trollope wrote his story after a visit to Prague, in what was then Bohemia. The city was a hotbed of racial tension between Jews and Christians, and the problem there was much greater than in other parts of Europe.
Nina Balakta is the daughter of an impoverished and sickly merchant. The family’s fortunes rely on her making a good marriage, and it seems as though their future is secured when Nina’s cousin, the charmless Karil Zamenoy, asks for her hand in marriage. Much to her Aunt Sophie’s disgust, Nina declares herself to be in love with Anton Trendellsohn, a wealthy Jewish merchant whose father owns the house in which they live. Much conflict and emotion ensues.
A thoroughly enjoyable, if at times heart-breaking, Bohemian rhapsody.
What does everyone else think? No doubt some will think I’m talking nonsense, but I can take it.
Next week I shall follow with Ten Terrible Trollopes, thereby showing that he didn’t always get it right.